Geek of the Week: Binnur Al-Kazily turns tech into teaching as a high school robotics mentor


Binnur Al-Kazily works at a Seattle startup and volunteers her time to kids learning robotics on Bainbridge Island, Wa. (Photo courtesy of Binnur Al-Kazily)

Five years ago, the Bainbridge Island, Wa., School District didn’t have a robotics team and the high school had one coding class. Now, thanks to inspired teachers, students and mentors, the community known for its vibrant support of the arts, has discovered its inner geek.

Binnur Al-Kazily is one of those mentors, and she’s the latest GeekWire Geek of the Week.

Al-Kazily was born in Turkey and immigrated to the United States as a high school senior. After considering enlisting in the Turkish Air Force or pursuing criminal defense, she says exposure to BASIC and Lotus 123 as a young woman changed her direction. She ended up being one of the few women in the computer engineering program at California State University.

During her career, Al-Kazily spent more than 10 years in the Imaging and Printing Group at Hewlett-Packard, ran her own consulting company, and is now a senior program manager at Atlas Informatics, a Seattle startup.

Al-Kazily’s son, who is now a second-year engineering student at the University of Washington, was part of Bainbridge’s Spartronics 4915 team when it was formed. Al-Kazily jumped at the opportunity to promote technology and work with kids in the program.

Binnur Al-Kazily, front left in black hat, poses with the Spartronics 4915 team from Bainbridge Island, Wa. (Spartronics Photo)

“I had participated in many club activities with my son, however I find that FIRST FRC [robotics competition] provides the most real-world experience possible for kids in high school,” Al-Kazily said. “The students’ level of engagement and their desire to learn and achieve (and sometimes over-commit) is contagious. What starts as a mentor/mentee relationship quickly evolves into partnership where we all are working toward the ultimate purpose of creating something special.”

Clio Batali, a student co-captain of the Spartronics, said that after four years with the program, Al-Kazily’s touch really shows.

Binnur Al-Kazily poses with her husband Riyadth Al-Kazily at a steampunk-inspired competition. (Spartronics Photo)

“Binnur’s commitment and dedication to our team and our community are some of the greatest forces behind Spartronics. Her care and support, alongside her pragmatism and bluntness, have taught us all to grow, and have shaped the team along with us. Her spark and her kindness inspire us all with a confidence that we can each take into the outside world.”

Al-Kazily said she likes to emphasize to students that the experience is about much more than just robots.

“It is about working together to build something better than any one of us could do individually,” she said. “I see high school as a bridge to college (and beyond), and students should experience as many diverse activities as possible to find their interests before deciding on their next steps. And I always make sure that they all understand the FIRST catch-phrase: ‘This is the hardest fun you’ll ever have.'”

The hard work by everyone is paying off. Bainbridge Island now has seven robotics teams and four computer classes as well as a digital design set of courses at the high school. Spartronics took first place at a recent FRC event in Auburn, Wa., and won the highly-coveted Engineering Inspiration Award. And an open house at the high school this week attracted 500 island residents.

Learn more about this week’s Geek of the Week, Binnur Al-Kazily:

What do you do, and why do you do it? “I love building things and taking on challenges of doing things that haven’t been done before. The journey from nothing to something amazing is full of starts, stops and course corrections, bringing diverse people together to achieve something that is bigger than any one of us alone. I enjoy the process of shaping ideas, enabling others to grow and succeed, celebrate, iterate and execute each day to do better and more, possibly with less. On the surface, it is a puzzle and I thrive on challenge of building the best picture possible.”

What’s the single most important thing people should know about your field? “I think Theodore Roosevelt said it best, and I am sure he was thinking about the challenges of high-tech fields and technology innovations when he said:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.’ — Excerpt from the speech ‘Citizenship In A Republic.”

Where do you find your inspiration? “I am an avid reader who believes in learning from others and their experiences. I also feel inspiration and creativity is all around us, and I just need to be open to it. So I look for unexpected connections, analogies and stories to build insights, and make time for reflection. I also love working with kids, as they are fearless in everything they do.”

What’s the one piece of technology you couldn’t live without, and why? “My iPhone, it goes with me to almost everywhere. It gives me the feeling of connectedness, regardless of where I am. I trust it.”

Binnur Al-Kazily, right, with co-worker Rebecca Destello at Atlas Informatics in Seattle’s Pioneer Square neighborhood. (Photo courtesy of Binnur Al-Kazily)

What’s your workspace like, and why does it work for you? “I like open spaces with lots of light and music in the background — you feel the energy! I have been a stand-up desk user for about 10 years, and I am occasionally found perching on a tall stool or sitting cross legged on a couch with a laptop. I gravitate towards easily accessible spaces to enable lots of interaction and communication.”

Your best tip or trick for managing everyday work and life. (Help us out, we need it.) “I am still looking for that magic bullet! For me, it works best when I just let life and work flow, without fighting it. I have learned to tune in to my body, treat myself to good chocolate, and listen to 2Cellos when I need focus. I do keep a weekly online journal (Bullet Journal style) to track my activities, and also depend on a calendar and Slack for reminders.”

Mac, Windows or Linux? “Mac (and Apple products) has been my home for more than 13 years, even when I have no choice but to use Windows I do it with a VM.”

Kirk, Picard, or Janeway? “Janeway, absolutely! All the way!! Quote: ‘There’s got to be a way to have our cake and eat it, too.'”

Transporter, Time Machine or Cloak of Invisibility? “Time Machine, but only if I can be The Doctor’s companion, traveling across time and space in the Tardis. Otherwise, Transporter to allow world-wide travel without the hassle of the TSA or packing. The Cloak of Invisibility is not the kind of transparency I appreciate.”

If someone gave me $1 million to launch a startup, I would … “Design and build devices to boost education in the fields of technology, particularly relating to robotics. These tools and toys would inspire young girls to embrace technology, and enable them to see how they can influence its design. I want to share the experience of creativity through technology.”

I once waited in line for … “An iPhone — but only for 15 minutes, since I already ordered one. I just wanted the experience of standing in line for an Apple product. It just wasn’t that interesting.”

Your role models: “Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, also known as the Father of the Turks. He was a soldier, military leader, visionary, statesman, and a teacher. In summary, he was a transformational leader that led his country in war and in modernization. He rallied a country to achieve what was believed to be impossible, building modern Turkey from dismay. He is my impossible-to-reach measuring stick, and being a military brat, I follow in his footsteps.

“Possibly on a completely perpendicular spectrum, Derek Hough. He is a dancer, choreographer and probably best known on Dancing with the Stars. I think he has the amazing ability to mold his choreography to showcase the strengths of his partner while still creating brilliant dances. I love his creativity and out of the box thinking.”

Greatest game in history: “Last weekend’s (March 5, 2017) FRC robotics competition matches with Spartronics (team 4915) and our alliance partners Robotics of Central Kitsap (team 3223) and Apex Robotics (team 5803). So much drama, and a tremendous victory, all packed into less than three hours! Wow, just WOW!!”

Best gadget ever: “Roomba! Our Dr. D — inspired by the Diagnostic Repair Drone (DRD) from ‘Farscape’ — makes my living room all sparkly, and even plays hide and seek with me. It is nice to find him parked at his charger when we come home, but he still likes to mix things up a bit now and then. (Like when we found that he crawled up inside the sofa!)

First computer: “PC XT clone, used to dial-in to mini-computers at school (2400bps!). It was sooo fast!”

Current phone: “iPhone 7. Probably 1000 times more powerful than my first computer.”

Favorite app: “Certainly not Eclipse! I’m sure if someone added a few more icons or buttons it would be much better. (Not!) Actually my favorite is Camera on the iPhone, because it’s fun, and it’s in my hand and ready to use. HDR is cool!”

Favorite cause: “Mentoring in FIRST! I love our 4 week robotics bootcamp experience with our lady roboticists! They get a hands on experience with every aspect of building and competing with a robot, in strategy, marketing, engineering, and programming, as an all girl team for the Pacific Northwest Girls Generation competition. It is a great way to introduce young women to technology, and to build our pipeline of candidates for the more intense 6-week build season. Mentoring for FIRST FRC has been an inspiring and humbling experience. Our next generation of engineers and entrepreneurs constantly amaze and inspire me! Watching us all grow together as a team and seeing what we can build in six weeks is priceless!”

Most important technology of 2016: “Self-driving vehicles! This has so much potential from convenience to cost reduction to saving lives to improving the quality of life for seniors. At the same time, they require social and policy changes to enable their success. There will be huge changes across society as this technology develops.”

Most important technology of 2018: “The technologies that reduce friction in the human-computer interface in order to allow us to execute more complex tasks more simply and with higher accuracy. Real-world organizational skills in software, with useful suggestions provided at the right time in the right place. The Atlas Contextual Intelligence platform is a great example of this type of tool, providing awareness of context combined with the ability to connect related information. The components have been in development for decades, and now cloud computing, big data, machine learning, natural language processing, and ever more powerful devices and sensors will make the smart machine or personal assistant a reality. These technologies will give humans a new superpower, allowing for greater creativity and productivity by sensing our environment, keeping track of what we’re doing, and lending a hand whenever we need it. Like pair programming with a caffeinated robot.”

Final words of advice for your fellow geeks: “Play with robots, mentor someone, and get your ham radio license while you’re at it. You know you want to.”

Website: Conversations on Technology as Change

Twitter: @dashdashB

LinkedIn: Binnur Al-Kazily

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